Three Things You Don’t Know About Aids In Africa

Posted on November 21, 2006 

Three Things You Don’t Know About Aids In Africa

At just twenty-six, economist Emily Oster may have the highest controversies-generated-to-years-in-academia ratio of anyone in her field. That’s because, as a Ph.D. student at Harvard, she chose to hop the fence and explore a topic already claimed by doctors, social scientists, and policy wonks: the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Her studies suggest some uncomfortable possibilities—not least that the so-called experts have gotten their approach to the crisis dead wrong.

That’s an important distinction. These disciplines believe that cultural differences—differences in how entire groups of people think and act—account for broader social and regional trends. AIDS became a disaster in Africa, the thinking goes, because Africans didn’t know how to deal with it.

Economists like me don’t trust that argument. We assume everyone is fundamentally alike; we believe circumstances, not culture, drive people’s decisions, including decisions about sex and disease.


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